This Man Won A Double Decathlon For South Africa At Age 49

Age didn't stop Oloff Van Zyl from winning gold for South Africa.


Thaaqib Daniels |

Getting older is inevitable, but giving up isn’t. Oloff van Zyl, has nearly hit the half-century mark on his birthday count, but that didn’t stop him from winning a gold medal for South Africa in August. The man from Noordhoek competed in the 2018 Icosathlon which took place in Delft, Netherlands, finishing first in his age bracket. MH caught up with Oloff to find out his secrets to success.

The 49-year-old works full-time as the senior financial analyst for a national consumer brands manufacturer, but he makes time for his athletic training and competitions.

“My competitive track and field career was built on a distance running foundation, but at 1.91 metres tall and weighing in at 80kg, my body is not suited for competitive distance racing at elite level,” he says. “I’m too lean for sprinting and throwing events, and don’t have the hip and shoulder mobility required for optimal jumping or hurdling technique. This led me to start a career in multi-events track and field.”

An Icosathlon consists of twenty events (double decathlon) contested over two days. It includes all 18 Olympic arena track and field events, with the addition of 200m hurdles and a 3000m race.

“Summer of 2017/18 was my ninth season competing as a masters track and field athlete,” he recalls. “It started with supporting my dad at masters track and field meetings. In 2008, at the age of 70, he entered his first 100m sprint race since leaving school in the mid 1950s.

“Today at 81, he holds multiple provincial sprint records and several national titles. Last month, he earned a 400m bronze medal at the World Masters Athletics Championships. Sitting around as a mere spectator does not work for me, so within a few months I entered my first track and field event as a masters athlete.”

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“I can’t recall ever not running.”

Despite his late start to his athletic career due to injuries, sprinting and competing has always been part of Oloff’s life. Here’s a timeline of his development as a competitive athlete:

  • Age 12:  “I won a small trophy for my athletic achievements at primary school.”
  • Age 23 – “I started running competitively (mainly road running) as an adult, after hanging up my rugby boots. I took an 8 year break from running through my 30s after too many injuries.”
  • Age 39 – “I started running again and gradually became a track specialist.”
  • Age 45 – “I ran my first 3000m steeplechase race and set a regional open record.”
  • Age 46 –  “I learned to hurdle, leading with both legs.”
  • Age 47 – “I entered my first international track and field competition.”
  • Age 48 – “I started competing in throwing events, pole vault, and decathlon.”

“The endurance bias of the Icosathlon (double decathlon), with six middle to long distance events out of twenty gives me a big advantage over classic decathletes,” says Oloff. “The decathlon only features one endurance event (1500m) out of ten.”

Challenges

“Poor hip and shoulder mobility, due to years of neglect, makes me very injury prone in throwing, jumping and hurdling events. It forced me to cut back on my training load six week before competition. It’s also tough balancing time commitments made to athletics with other important things in life, especially family.”

Training

“I did 60 minutes of functional fitness training three mornings a week, ran (usually intervals or tempo runs) for at least 40 minutes two to three times a week.

“[This was] while doing technical training for hurdles or field events twice a week. A lot of stretching, foam rolling and mobility work between sessions. I also participated in 8km cross country races to test my fitness through the winter months leading up to the champs in Delft.”

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Representing SA

 “Wearing the green and gold, representing SA Masters Athletics, and waving my small bandanna size SA flag was a huge honour,” Oloff notes.

“The Delft AV40 track is about 4km northeast of the small Delft city centre. It’s on the outskirts of a forest and almost entirely surrounded by tall green leafy trees. Athletics utopia!”

Nutrition

“Good nutrition can make a big difference in performance, especially for masters athletes. It’s so much more than a weight management or competition fuelling programme. Along with stress management, sleep, and exercise, nutrition is key to good general health for everyone.

“Personally, I try to limit my sugar, refined carbohydrate and alcohol intake. I stopped eating canteen meals and fast food over 12 months ago.”

Breakfast (between 9:30 and 10:30) – 350ml double cream yogurt, some rolled oats, with strawberries, dates, or dried figs.

Lunch (13:00) – Mixed platter that could include avocado, olives, strong cheese, nuts, tuna, sardines, biltong, tomato, cucumber, raw spinach, or broccoli.

Dinner (7:30) – Meat, vegetables and a small portion of starch including brown rice, potato, sweet potato, couscous or pasta.

Snacks – biltong, dates, nuts, whole fruit including apples, oranges, bananas, pawpaw and melon.

Drinks – Water, coffee, fat shake (full cream milk, coconut cream, cacao and nut butter), apple cider vinegar in hot water, and coconut water.

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What went through your mind when you got the gold medal?

“Relief! With three events to go, I was leading by a very comfortable margin of around 1500 points. Ten laps into the final event (10000m), I started feeling drowsy and could barely swallow water due to a swollen tongue. The icosathlon competition rules state that an athlete has to complete every track event and make at least one attempt in every field event, to qualify for a final score.”

His advice for aspiring athletes… 

Be patient with yourself and enjoy your time on the track. Build friendships with your rivals and be generous with encouragement. Your biggest rival is YOU. Welcome young and inexperienced athletes when they step out on the track for the first time.

“Intensity is only the third ingredient for sustainable growth and performance in a competitive sport. First focus on technique (how to move your body optimally), then consistency through repetition (“wax on, wax off”), and finally, throw in intensity with lots of passion.”

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